In the middle of the sixteenth century, in all of Europe there is a demand for printed images with religious or moralistic content with an educational function. The earliest dated example of Bruegel's hand is the print The Temptation of Saint Anthony from 1556. In this tribute to the imagery of Hieronymus Bosch's engraving, of which the design drawing still exists, the hermit Antonius Abt sits in the foreground on the right. The holy man prays unperturbed while behind him all sorts of sinful and crazy scenes are to be seen.
The series of prints, The Seven Deadly Sins (1556 - 1558) holds a central place in Bruegel's religious-moralistic allegories. The background must be sought out in the dispute between Catholics and Protestants in the Netherlands and specifically the theological discussions amongst the respective advocates of predestination and free will. Bruegel also further emboldens the Bosch idiom in this series. Bruegel shows the consequence of human actions: sinners are unrelentingly punished. The stark message is conveyed with mockery and Bruegel's humour.
The counterpart of The Seven Deadly Sins is the series The Seven Virtues (1559 - 1560). The latter differs considerably from the first series. The imagery is more contemporary, no longer founded upon Bosch and the setting is realistic, which undoubtedly the transmission of the moralistic message properly brought across. In the eyes of his contemporaries the (architectural) setting, the regional attire and accessories must be very well presented. Just as with the sins, the leading role is played by a female personage. Bruegel made use of the paradox and plays with the meaning by it, for example, in Hope concentrating on the surging water. For the peasant, water is necessary and also for the people extinguishing a fire and the prisoners that are locked up in the tower. However, that same water breaks dikes and capsizes ships and boats. The fisherman is fishing while a drowned body on the left threatens to be gulped down by a dreadful sea monster.